Sunday, January 25, 2015

Selma: Stories We Need to Hear

I went to see Selma yesterday, in a nearly empty theater. If you haven’t seen it, please do!

The film does a masterful job of capturing the conflict, fear, faith and courage that carried the Civil Rights Movement forward during the dark days of 1965.

It portrays Martin Luther King as an imperfect man, deeply conflicted between his calling, his family, and a deep inner exhaustion. Actor David Oyelowo brilliantly captures the grandeur of King’s rhetorical cadence, but also the weakness and pain of a man prodded into leadership in a costly, dangerous journey.

Watching the story unfold, I was struck by how little I know of the reality of segregation and the still ongoing struggle for full integration. The civics and history curricula of my New York State education in the sixties and seventies carried little exploration of racial struggle. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man was the only nod I remember to a minority point of view. Even in college and graduate school, with degrees in Humanities and American Lit, I read more by Irish poets than by African-Americans.

From what I can, those curricula have changed, amd I celebrate the changes. But I’m not sure that excuses those of us who missed Black History Month, or whose educations somehow omitted the less-dominant point of view.

I’ve been reading the work of John M. Perkins, born just a year after MLK in New Hebron, Mississippi. When he was 16, he left the south, swearing he’d never go back, after his older brother Clyde, a Purple Heart veteran of World War II,  died in his arms, shot by a white deputy marshall.

A profound conversion to Christianity a decade later prompted a revision of priorities, and he and his wife Vera Mae went back to Mississippi to create a community of love. In the years following the March on Washington, the years covered by Selma, they helped register the first black voters in Mississippi, enrolled two of their children as the first black students in Mendenhall, Mississippi’s all-white public school, and worked tirelessly to challenge the seemingly immovable structures of racial oppression.

In 1969, he helped lead a boycott of Mendenhall’s white-owned stores; in 1970, after a protest march in Mendenhall, he was arrested, badly beaten, and made to clean his own blood from the walls.

Perkins and Vera Mae, like King, have written about the pain of working for integration while white Christian observers urged them to be patient, to stick to saving souls and leave politics alone.

In his 1976 autobiography Let Justice Roll Down, Perkins described the threats, arrests, beatings, and economic hardship suffered by his family and those who walked with them, and asked that those outside the situation take time to learn and understand before forming opinions or passing judgment:
One of the things for Christian observers is that there are times when the biggest need is for information rather than exhortation.  We need to know more about what really goes on before we solidify our theoretical ideas about what a Christian “ought” or “ought not” to do.
 Whether we admit it or not, our reading of biblical ethics is colored by our perception of the world around us.  If we think that there are only a few “bad guys” such as burglars or murderers, and that all the given political, legal and economic structures around us are basically okay, then we are bound to read our Bibles in a certain way.  We will assume that it tells us to “lay low,” whether we are a part of the law or only under the law; that the person who speaks out is a rebellious agitator.
But that assumption can be badly shaken up by a good look at what happens to many people who are simply crushed by, rather than helped by, these social structures and institutions that we take for granted.  If sin can exist at every level of government, and in every human institution, then also the call to biblical justice in every corner of society must be sounded by those who claim a God of Justice as their Lord. (Let Justice Roll Down, 195, 1976 edition)
I was in my early thirties when I met Dr. Perkins. After a lifetime of starting and leading organizations addressing economic and racial injustice, he had agreed to be a board member for Prison Fellowship where my husband, Whitney, worked for fourteen years. I remember sitting next to him at a board dinner surrounded by men who had held political office, or run Fortune 500 companies. At a tableful of powerful men used to being heard, his soft voice commanded attention. He had seen the injustice of our prison system in ways the others had only heard of, and his integrity and gentle authority were, and still are, a gift to all who knew him.

Voices like his, though, are too rarely heard.

We’d rather hear from sources that confirm our unacknowledged biases and affirm our unfounded opinions than take the time to listen to unfamiliar voices saying uncomfortable things. 

I don’t pay much attention to the Oscars, but it’s hard to miss the discussion about the current nominations: none in any category for an actor of color. None for Ava DuVernay, Selma’s masterful female African-American director.

Does that matter?

It does if our point of view is shaped by the stories we hear.

And those stories are told from a narrow, too familiar point of view.

Watching Selma, I was struck by how many different people played a part in keeping the dream alive.

The housewife who hosted the leadership team, cooking food, and more food, for a group that had nowhere else to meet.

The reporters who braved tear gas and flying clubs to broadcast the story from the Edmund Pettus bridge.

The grandson, Jimmie Lee Jackson, tracked down and shot by an Alabama trooper for his longing to see his grandfather vote before he die.

And the grandfather, Cager Lee, in his eighties, determined to claim the rights he’d been promised, but never fully seen.

The priests, pastors and rabbis who came thousands of miles by bus to stand with the marchers as they crossed the bridge again.

The students who lived for months, even years, in poor communities far from home, winning trust and struggling to register voters.

The movement depended on the actions of people whose names aren’t remembered. Men, women and children who were near the eye of the storm in Selma, and others, like the Perkins family, in other storms, in other states, all sharing the same vision of equality for all.

The marvel of the civil rights movement is that the energy that in some places exploded into violence was channeled through peaceful means into a united voice that cried out together, “no more!” Through a miracle of prayer and determined unity, through the disciplined work of many courageous, faithful men and women, through endless hours of preparation and attentive listening to each other and to scripture and the Holy Spirit, the leaders of the movement pressed on to remove obstacles to integration and to ensure the right to vote.

That’s part of who we are.

But the swinging clubs, the tear gas, the guns. The illegal wiretaps. The trooper who followed an unarmed man, shot him while he was down, and was never reprimanded:  that’s part of who we are too. 

They're part of our own story, the story of all who call the United States home.

When we talk about Ferguson, or prison overcrowding.

When our legislators pass Voter ID bills without asking who they’re shutting out.

When we underfund urban schools.

When we fail to speak out when critics challenge our president’s credentials as an native-born American, or hint that he’s "less American" than the rest of "us."

We would do well to remember who we are.

Where we’ve come from.

Which story line we’re adding to.

What denouement we’re hoping for.

And along the way, we would do well to know our stories better. 

Information before exhortation.

Black History month starts next Sunday. Not a bad time to do a little winter reading. For a start: 
Let Justice Roll Down, by John M. Perkins
Coming of Age in Mississippi, by Anne Moody

Hands on the Freedom Plow, Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC

Freedom’s Daughters by Lynne Olson

Voices of Freedom by Harry Hampton

And yes, please, see the movie: Selma.

Your thoughts and comments are welcome. I'd be interested to hear if you've seen the movie, or to know what books or films have enlarged your understanding of this chapter of the American story.